Developer Harmonix is best known to mainstream gamers for creating the Guitar Hero series and then moving on to other big franchises like Rock Band and Dance Central. But truth be told, they also made some quality titles in their earlier days before hitting it big.
Chief among these was the 2001 PlayStation 2 game Frequency, which had players manually switch between instruments in a song and press inputs for each one on a standard controller. While the game was not exactly a hit, Sony still gave the go-ahead to make a sequel and the result was 2003’s Amplitude, a title which refined its predecessor’s mechanics and presentation to great results.
While the game garnered critical acclaim and a cult following, it still underperformed financially, leading Harmonix to leave the series behind and move on to other projects. Over a decade later, the developer announced plans to create a new Amplitude via a Kickstarter campaign. Now that the game is complete, fans are likely wondering if the revival can live up to the title that inspired it. After spending a decent amount of time with it, I can tell you that the short answer is no. However, it’s still a title that rhythm game fans should check out.
The core gameplay remains unchanged from the PS2 days. Players navigate a highway of notes very similar to the likes of Rock Band, though these tracks can actually visually curve and bend as players move through them to mix things up. The highway is divided into several sections, with each one representing an instrument or the vocals in whichever song you choose to play. Each of those has notes that you need to hit at the right time with either the L2, R1 & R2 shoulder buttons or the Square, Triangle, and Circle buttons.
If you can successfully hit enough notes in a row, that individual track will temporarily disappear and keep playing its audio automatically, allowing you to move to a different track and repeat the process until the full song is playing. Each track of notes reappears shortly, though, so you have little in the way of downtime. The key to keeping a streak and score multiplier is to keep switching from track to track with the D-pad without missing any sections in between, which is something easier to accomplish here thanks to the subtle but welcome addition of the game quickly moving you automatically past any currently empty track when navigating.
Believe it or not, there is technically a plot to Amplitude, but it’s a pretty vague one. While the game hosts 32 total songs, half of them are tied to the primary campaign mode, in which Amplitude itself appears to be a program in a patient’s head reconstructing their brain functions.
You don’t get any true narration or fleshed-out cutscenes, and aside from a brief line of dialog at the start of each track and a screen in between songs showing which portion of the brain you’re in, there’s not much else to it. While this does nothing to ruin the experience of playing Amplitude, it still ends up feeling completely superfluous.
The backgrounds and neon-heavy color scheme still provide some dazzling visuals for those willing to glance away from the note tracks, but despite all the additional horsepower the PS4 provides, I have to say that I’m not the biggest fan of the aesthetic Harmonix went with. The original Amplitude was also colorful, but brighter, often had more going on, and incorporated cute touches like seeing videos of each track’s artist from time to time. Here, it feels too dark, muted and sometimes minimalistic for its own good.
Another key factor is the soundtrack. The original Amplitude contained both talented indie artists, contemporary groups like Garbage and Weezer, and even David Bowie. Together, all their talents resulted in a varied, entertaining, and memorable setlist. This actually comes with more tracks (over 30 compared to the original’s 26), but the big problems here are the overall diversity and quality.
The focus is squarely on electronic tracks, with most composed in-house by Harmonix, and while there are certainly songs I enjoyed more than others, not a single one will stick with me. I understand that Harmonix had a much smaller budget than before due to both the nature of the game’s creation and not having a larger company like Sony or MTV backing them, but there’s no getting around the fact that the game ends up suffering because of it.
These major complaints regarding both the visuals and audio might make it sound like Amplitude isn’t worth any rhythm fan’s time, but that’s not actually the case. As much as I may complain about the game, and as bland as the soundtrack can be, the gameplay is still able to overcome these problems and be a ton of fun.
Rock Band veterans may scoff at the idea of going from five note inputs to three, but when you invest some time in its higher difficulties, Amplitude will demand a lot from you. The fact that you don’t focus on just one instrument, as well as how switching between them can come down to split-second inputs without breaking your streak, adds a whole new level of challenge.
And honestly, I didn’t want it any other way. Rock Band 3 is probably my most played game of all time, but there was always something more enticing to me about being involved in every part of the song rather than limiting myself to one instrument. True, Harmonix utilized a simplified version of this formula with Rock Band Blitz to fun results, but there’s just more to Amplitude in comparison. The note tracks are manually crafted, and you have powerups that can make or break you depending on when you use them. Basically, it’s been hard for me to find rhythm games that got me as wrapped up in them as this series has, and this did not end that tradition.
It’s also worth noting that Amplitude contains local co-op and competitive play, and though the lack of being able to play any time online is unfortunate (al beit much less unfortunate than in Rock Band 4), if you can get some friends together, you’ll still have some fun. You can strive to get a high score together, which is probably the best way to play with inexperienced friends, or strive to win on your own. It’s straightforward, but pretty well-implemented.
If it isn’t clear, Amplitude has some major problems with its presentation that keep it from being anywhere near as great as the game that inspired it. And yet, when you look at the part that matters most, the result is a title that deserves some attention. The gameplay formula is still a winning one, and is something that fans of the genre will find themselves seriously into once they start playing. This Amplitude won’t leave a mark on me the way its PS2 parent did over a decade ago, but I still ended up walking away quite happy with it.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.
Amplitude lacks both the visual and audible punch its predecessor delivered, but the gameplay still manages to be immersive, intense and often enjoyable.